David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

post # 185 — September 8, 2006 — a Client Relations post

I just received an email suggesting I blog about waiting times in business. I suspect the author of the email knows about my article The Psychology of Waiting Lines, written more than 20 years ago. The topic here is not how to make the waiting time shorter, but how to make it more acceptable or palatable to the person waiting.

In spite of its age, I still get lots of calls from reporters who want to do stories on this, and the article is among my most frequently cited (for those who are counting). This is a great opportunity to get you all involved. I’ll give you the highlights of what I said back then, and you can tell me what I missed or should add.

I had eight propositions about how people experience waiting and what businesses could do to make a wait feel less onorous.

1) Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time.

In various restaurants, it is common practice to hand out menus for customers to peruse while waiting in line. Apart from shortening the perception of time, this practice has the added benefit of shortening the service time, since customers will be ready to order once they are seated, and will not tie up table space making up their minds.

2) People Want to Get Started.

One’s ‘anxiety’ level is much higher while waiting to be served than it is while being served, even though the latter wait may be longer. There is a fear of ‘being forgotten’. (How many times has the reader gone back to a maitre d’ to check that his or her name is still on the list?). Many restaurant owners instruct their service staff to pass by the table as soon as the customers are seated to say “I’ll be with you as soon as I can, after I’ve looked after that table over there”. In essence, the signal is being sent: ‘We have acknowledged your presence’.

3) Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer.

Nearly everyone has had the experience of choosing a line at the supermarket or airport, and stood there worrying that he had, indeed, chosen the wrong line. As one stands there trying to decide whether to move, the anxiety level increases and the wait becomes intolerable. This situation is covered by what is known as Erma Bombeck’s Law: “The other line always moves faster”

4) Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits

Clients who arrive early for an appointment will sit contentedly until the scheduled time, even if this is a significant amount of time in an absolute sense (say, thirty minutes). However, once the appointment time is passed, even a short wait of, say, ten minutes, grows increasingly annoying. The wait until the appointed time is finite; waiting beyond the point has no knowable limit.

5) Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits

On a cold and snowy morning, when I telephone for a taxi, I begin with the expectation that my wait will be longer than on a clear, summer day. Accordingly, I wait with a great deal more patience because I understand the causes for the delay. Similarly, if a doctor’s receptionist informs me that an emergency has taken place, I can wait with greater equanimity that if I do not know what is going on. Airline pilots understand this principle well; on-board announcements are filled with references to tardy baggage handlers, fog over landing strips, safety checks, and air-traffic controllers’ clearance instructions. The explanation given may or may not exculpate the service provider, but is it better than no explanation at all.

6) Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits

In many waiting situations, there is no visible order to the waiting line. In situations such as waiting for a subway train, the level of anxiety demonstrated is high, and the group waiting is less a queue than a mob. Instead of being able to relax, each individual remains in a state of nervousness about whether their priority in the line is being preserved. As already noted, agitated waits seem longer than relaxed waits. It is for this reason that many service facilities have a system of taking a number, whereby each customer is issued a number and served in strict numerical order. In some facilities, the number currently being served is prominently displayed so that customers can estimate the expected waiting times.

7) The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait

That perceived value affects tolerance or waits can be demonstrated by our common experience in restaurants-we will accept a much longer waiting time at a haute cuisine facility than at a “greasy spoon.” In universities, there is an old rule of thumb that if the teacher is delayed, “You wait ten minutes for an assistant professor, fifteen minutes for an associate professor, and twenty minutes for a full professor.” This illustrates well the principle that tolerance for waits depends upon perceived value of service-perhaps with the emphasis on the perception.

8) Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits

One of the remarkable syndromes to observe in waiting lines is to see individuals sitting or standing next to each other without talking or otherwise interacting until an announcement of a delay is made. Then the individuals suddenly turn to each other to express their exasperation, wonder collectively what is happening, and console each other. What this illustrates is that there is some form of comfort in group waiting rather than waiting alone.


So, those were some of the principles in my original article. (Here’s the link again to the full piece, The Psychology of Waiting Lines.)

Now comes your challenge to help this discussion along: what “cool” approaches have you seen businesses use to apply these or other principles and make us, the customers, tolerate waits or even turn the wait to the business’ advantage?

Who’s doing clever things with managing waiting lines (or queues, as my English family calls them)?


Phil Gott said:

I can relate to so many of the examples you cite David and I’m sure you will get lots of comments. Anyway, here I am at the head of the line. I’m not sure whether this fits but I think the most important issue is for businesses to do much more to reduce the need for queuing in the first place. Why is there always a line in the bank at lunchtime? It happens every day. There is no excuse for it. There again, ATMs and on-line banking have helped to reduce the need to visit a bank at all so they have gone at least some way to tackling the problem. Airlines offer separate waiting lines for 1st class, business class and coach class fares. If I’m travelling coach class I can justify my extra waiting time knowing that I paid a fraction of the price paid by the suckers who are walking straight through. Similarly, toll roads offer a higher price alternative to queuing too. Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. I will feel a little better next time I have to queue just knowing why I am feeling so uptight!

posted on September 8, 2006

shuchetana said:

I really liked this article and tried to trackback to it from my own post (http://lifepbs.wordpress.com/2006/09/10/using-waiting-time/)about what to do while waiting.

But I’m a new blogger, and my comments and trackbacks aren’t working; it’s all very sad :(

But this is a really interesting post. I think group waits seem shorter because the people waiting are not unoccupied, i.e. they’re busy interacting with each other. So your first and last points are actually related, I think.

posted on September 10, 2006

Paughnee said:

Having been to DisneyWorld this summer, that’s the example that immediately came to mind. Every attraction has a sign stating how long the wait time will be from that point. In addition, Disney has mastered the art of pre-ride entertainment. I also thought of several restaurants that offer free peanuts while you wait for your table. It not only gives you a few bites to “tide you over” but it also gives you something to do (shelling the peanuts). My bank (a local bank, not a national chain) recently added small TV monitors at the drive-through. You can watch headline news and weather while you wait for your transaction to be processed. It’s definitely an effective distraction. Then, when your teller speaks to you, his or her image is broadcast so even if you’re on the far outside lane, you can see (and hear) the teller.

posted on September 11, 2006

Moray McConnachie said:

Interesting corollaries around modern technological queues at the point of queueing would make fascinating data for more study about what it takes for people to give up on queueing. A longer note on this is available on my blog.

posted on September 11, 2006

Jennifer Davis said:

Your principles are right on.

The most successful predator introduced to hunt down unproductive and anxiety-producing wait times has been the Blackberry. Aptly dubbed the “Crackberry” by some, this device lets people be productive in the most naturally unproductive locations, like waiting in line. I guess this would apply to text messaging on phones or other things that can be done silently in lines.

The other thing that I think will have a large impact in the coming years will be the introduction of quasi-educational digital signage as a way to warp people’s perception of wait time. Flat panel screens in check-out lines, for instance, will serve as the new “tabloid covers” (ie, mindless distraction) and could allow ads to be intermixed with short programming content. Various folks have tried it with varying degrees of implementation success, but they’ll figure out the nuances of volume control and relevancy to make it successful.

Taken further, they could even be interactive, allowing the users to customize their experience and get information that is relevant to them. Advertisers could get opt-in contact information, get survey data, or other user feedback without having to resort to the person with the clipboard at the store exit.

posted on September 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A real contribution jennifer. There’s a lot more to be said on this topic. Is anyone else out there wrkoing on it? I’d like to read more if it’s available.

posted on September 14, 2006

Chris Denny said:

Applying this subject to wait times for replies from website contact forms, I have alway been interested by the responses from visitors/leads regarding their wait times. I have clients who sell complex niche products but they dedicate themselves to fast repsonse times to online contacts. That mixture produces outright praise from customers – like an early “full professor” who has nice office hours and an open-door policy.

posted on February 16, 2007